In a scene from the Coen Brothers’ 1996 film Fargo, a character buries a briefcase containing $1 million in cash in the Minnesota snow. And in David Zellner’s recent film Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter, a naive Japanese woman travels to the actual town of Fargo in America, in search of the apparent fortune. Much like Kumiko, the 2014 Sydney Film Festival presented audiences with a treasure hunt into film, with 183 titles screening across just twelve days. Receiving the festival guide in the mail each year is always special, but the process of choosing which films to see is a tough one. Actually, choosing which films to miss out on is the hardest part. While some will be picked up by cinemas and released later in the year, many will disappear, never to be shown to a public audience in Australia again. In my own whirlwind treasure hunt this year, I was able to see eleven feature films – some of them surprise finds, but each offering a unique insight beyond the usual cinema experience.
The titular character of Zellner’s Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter is a 27 year old woman who lives a lonely existence with a pet rabbit in Tokyo, away from her mother who repeatedly implores her to return home, and stuck in a job that she hates and has outgrown. After discovering an old VHS tape of Fargo, she sees a chance to escape her mundane life.
This premise is intriguing, as the audience is asked to go along with an apparently foolhardy mission. Although every film invites audiences into a constructed world, Kumiko especially makes us reflect on the line between truth and fiction. We know that Fargo was a fictional movie, including the scene with the buried money, yet we are shown a statement that it was based on true events. That statement was enough for the fictional Kumiko to believe in the existence of the treasure, as it evidently was for others in real life – bizarrely, Zellner had based his story on news reports of actual people who had left their home countries in search of the Fargo money.
Alert to the distinction between truth and fiction, our focus when watching Kumiko becomes more about the character’s reactions while on the journey than her outcome. We are at a distance, wondering what the director is getting at, rather than emotionally involved in the narrative. The main character is similarly distant, revealing little more than a tentative persona as she encounters the more interesting Minnesota locals.
There are some good moments of fish-out-of-water humour but Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter seems like one running joke stretched too long, before a final payoff that puzzles. Perhaps other viewers have found something in this treasure hunt that I haven’t been able to locate.
A search is also central to the Indian film Siddharth, with a father searching for his lost son. However, this film is much more emotionally involving. We become increasingly invested in the father’s search for his son as the possibility of finding him becomes increasingly bleak.
‘Chain-wallah’ Mahendra fixes broken zips on the streets of Delhi, eking out a hard living for his wife and two children. Seeing an opportunity to improve their quality of life, he sends his twelve year-old son Siddarth away to work in a factory, expecting him to return home in time for the festival of Diwali. But when Siddharth fails to return, Mahendra goes in search of his son. Initially told that Siddharth simply ran away, he discovers that his son could have been abducted, leading to a desperate search across India.
This is a highly affecting and thought-provoking look at the lower classes in the world’s second most populated nation. Like far too many, Mahendra and his wife Suman are illiterate and technologically unskilled. They rely on their schooled young daughter to operate a mobile phone and write letters to politicians. They also have never taken a photo of their missing son. Their sheer lack of resources is both shocking and very real.
Canadian-born Richie Mehta paints a grim but inspiring portrait of his ancestral home, praising the resolve of India’s citizens to endure through lives of destitution.
Another of the four Indian films to feature in this year’s Sydney Film Festival was The Lunchbox, a worldwide hit for debut director Ritesh Batra.
Housewife Ila tries to regain the attention of her disinterested husband by sending her newly learned recipes to his workplace for lunch, only for the lunchbox to be mistakenly delivered to retiring widower Saajan (played by veteran actor Irrfan Khan). The two soon begin communicating to each other through notes placed in the lunchbox, forming a secret bond.
There are several very funny scenes provided by the pair’s respective foils. Ila looks to her unseen upstairs neighbour for advice on the relationship, while Saajan has to train his younger replacement, the overly enthusiastic orphan Shaikh. They relay their separate experiences to each other, providing emotional companionship from afar.
It’s easy to fall in love with this sweet film, which sees lonely souls connect in unlikely ways. Themes of isolation, death, family and happiness balance with wonderful humour to create a touching piece of arthouse Indian cinema.
French-Canadian film Gabrielle also presents a delightful relationship, in a stirring expose of disability and sexuality. Gabrielle is a young woman with Williams syndrome who sings in a choir for adults with mental challenges, as they prepare for a concert. She’s in love with fellow choir member Martin, but the relationship faces opposition when they are caught in a sexual embrace. Gabrielle then strives to gain independence and reunite with her boyfriend, but these simple goals are harder than the rest of society would imagine.
Director Louise Archambault challenges assumptions around people with a disability, shining light on their capabilities and the difficulties they face. She explores their lack of privacy and independence with great empathy, questioning the line between protection and limitation.
There are some tense scenes as Gabrielle navigates her way through the world, and several moments that sent the audience into raucous laughter. Gabrielle Marion-Rivard, who has Williams syndrome herself, is excellent in her first acting role. Established actor Alexandre Landry plays Martin well too. Gabrielle is a delightful, thoughtful, and very enjoyable film.
Australian writer-directors Michael Cody and Amiel Courtin-Wilson present a couple on the run, in their film Ruin. Set in Cambodia, with a mostly non-professional cast and improvised storyline, Ruin tells a story of crime and exploitation in the Asian nation. Sovanna, a prostitute subjected to violence from her pimp, and Phirun, a factory worker who also suffers abuse in his job, find each other on the streets of Phnom Penh. After a shocking incident, they are forced to flee the city, and hopefully find an escape from their tortured lives. However, their journey proves anything but easy.
Ruin has a familiar plot of lovers on the run, but the Australian filmmakers lift the story with a vision of Cambodia that is unsettling and tense. The daring use of location shooting, a powerful soundtrack and moments of startling violence maintain intensity throughout. In addition, Cody and Courtin-Wilson have created a dreamlike aesthetic that serves as a great contrast to the chaotic surroundings.
The budding relationship between Sovanna and Phirun is well handled, far from the overwrought treatments we often find in Hollywood films. Their intimacy and fears are believable, with Sang Malen particularly good in her role as Sovanna. Cast based on her abilities as a circus performer, the first-time actress portrays her prostitution escapee with genuine vulnerability.
Ruin continues a recent trend for Australian productions set in Asia. Last year’s Audience Award winner at the Sydney Film Festival was The Rocket, which was filmed in Laos. 2012 film Wish You Were Here was also partly shot in Cambodia, and 2009 film The Waiting City saw an Australian couple adopt a child in India.
After the screening of Ruin, I asked Cody and Courtin-Wilson whether we can expect more Australian filmmakers to look to Asia for inspiration. Cody was supportive of more stories from Asia being presented, while stressing the importance of thorough research and understanding of the host nation. Courtin-Wilson then pondered the distinction between documentary and drama, stating that if he had made a documentary about Cambodia or even Alaska, no one would question its authenticity. If Australian cinema continues to produce more quality films in Asia, that can only be a good thing.
Swedish film Something Must Break also presents a relationship on the margins of society. Sexually experimental Sebastian is saved from attack in a men’s bathroom by Andreas. They meet again soon after, and begin a relationship. Despite some highly intimate moments together, Andreas draws away, claiming that he is straight. He’s afraid of his unexpected feelings toward a man, but Sebastian vows to win him back.
Sebastian’s persona is anarchic, defying the opposition presented by Andreas and by mainstream society. Sebastian also experiments with gender, adopting a female alter ego called Elie. While these ingredients set up for an involving story, a lack of context or motivational background made the characters’ actions hard to follow. A surreal scene of slow motion urination in a male sex club is particularly jarring. The explicit sex scenes challenge what can be shown in cinema, and the trance-like soundtrack heightens our sense of unease. Although these distancing effects mirror the character’s marginalisation, I just wish I could be more invested with Sebastian’s defiant transformation into Elie.
Bisexual Iranian-American woman Shirin reflects on a recent break-up with her girlfriend Maxine in the more enjoyable film Appropriate Behavior. Following the breakup, New Yorker Shirin tries to move on with her life, while keeping her bisexuality a secret from her Iranian parents. Meanwhile, flashbacks reveal moments from Shirin’s relationship with Maxine, as she tries to pinpoint why it fell apart.
This is a funny debut feature from Desiree Akhavan, who made it as her thesis film at NYU. Appropriate Behavior continues a theme of recent ‘quarter-life crisis’ movies like Frances Ha, Lola Versus and TV series Girls. Fans of these titles will appreciate the offbeat humour as the twentysomething lead searches for a purposeful career, lasting relationship, and unique identity. Where Appropriate Behavior soars above its peers is through examining modern life as a child of immigrant parents, negotiating their expected roles and evolving identities, stuck between two very different cultures.
Veteran filmmaker Richard Linklater takes the ‘coming of age’ genre to a literal extent with the release of his film Boyhood. Filmed over an astonishing twelve years using the same cast, Boyhood follows the character Mason – and the actor Ellar Coltrane – as they grow up from age 5 to 18.
Linklater has made some delightful films through his career, with his trademark ‘slice of life’ style. The Before Sunrise trilogy was a dialogue-rich celebration of life’s transitory moments. His two 1990s films Slacker and Dazed and Confused were similarly fly-on-the-wall depictions of youths trying to postpone growing up. With Boyhood, Linklater has returned to these themes with his most daring and realistic project.
Don’t expect a major plot, but instead enjoy the snapshots of life as the years fly by. Some sequences are funny, others are difficult, and many have a happy glow. There are asides with family members and friends who enter and leave the picture.
Like many separated families today, Mason’s visits with his father (played well by Linklater regular Ethan Hawke) are occasional, and he struggles to relate to a series of stepfathers. Patricia Arquette puts in one of her best performances as his mother, who wants the best for her son but can’t seem to find a balance in her own life. The bond between Mason and his sister Samantha (played by Richard Linklater’s daughter, Lorelei) over the years is charming.
Boyhood is a warm and realistic portrait of life’s assorted relationships and experiences, as well as being a tremendous cinematic achievement.
High school senior Jean prepares for his final exams and transition to university, in the Brazilian film Casa Grande.
Jean enjoys a privileged upbringing among the social elite in Rio de Janiero, unaware of his parents’ mounting debts. Nestled in an affluent cocoon, Jean attends one of the nation’s best schools and parties with his wealthy friends. His only interactions with Brazil’s lower classes are through friendly exchanges with the family’s servants. Searching for a girlfriend, he only looks as far as housekeeper Rita, who appropriately lives downstairs, but who refuses his childish advances. Forced onto a school bus when the family driver is fired, Jean is then able to meet a mixed-race girl from a lesser ranked school.
The film is a grand statement on the nature of class and master-servant relations, providing an insight into social divide in Brazil. With football’s World Cup now underway in the nation, the timing couldn’t be better. At the screening, Director Fellipe Barbosa thanked the Sydney Film Festival for taking him away from his home country, joking that he could have been jailed for protesting the multibillion dollar sporting event.
A profound and important film, Casa Grande is also a funny, sincere story of a teenager realising more about the world around him.
Singaporean film Ilo Ilo explores similar themes to Casa Grande, with a young boy growing up oblivious to his parents’ money problems. Ten year old Jiale resents the arrival of Filipino live-in maid Teresa, refusing to behave in her presence. Meanwhile, Jiale’s father Teck and mother Hwee Leng face sudden financial hardship.
Teresa strives to save up money for her family who remain in Manilla. Her move to Singapore presents a chance for a better life, but the onset of the 1997 Asian Financial Crisis creates a looming threat to her job. Teck loses his job, but keeps this secret from his wife, while pregnant Hwee Leng witnesses redundancies of her colleagues.
An added challenge for Teresa is Jiale’s constant disobedience, but she slowly manages to form an alliance with the boy, to the envy of his mother. There are similarities here with the transnational film Mammoth, which also featured a child becoming closer to her Filipino maid than her own mother. Like the maid in Mammoth, Teresa has also moved away from her children. These two films’ joint view of immigration and aspiration in a global economy is fascinating.
The financial difficulties of this family unit are mostly engaging throughout Ilo Ilo, as each character charms us to empathise with their struggles and ambitions. The film is sweet and realistic but fails to reach major dramatic heights, and its abrupt ending leaves too much unresolved.
Black Coal, Thin Ice is a Chinese mystery thriller that won the top prize at the 2014 Berlin Film Festival. In a fabulous opening prologue, a police investigation into a series of murders culminates in the deaths of several officers and suspects. Officer Zhang Zili is injured in the gunfight and forced to retire. Years later, Zhang has become alcoholic and resigned to working tedious shifts as a security guard. When a further string of similar murders emerge, Zhang follows the case, as well as a mysterious woman who may hold the answers.
Northern China, a region rarely seen on screen, was a great setting for this film noir. The ever-falling snow, gritty industrial sets, and neon city lights combine to create an atmosphere not unlike a Howard Hawks picture from the 40s. The femme fatale is Wu Zhizhen, an enigmatic laundrette worker whose husband was a victim of the initial murders. The performances of Gwei Lun-Mei as Wu and Liao Fan as Zhang are excellent, their association filled with sexual tension and danger.
Direction from Yi’nan Diao is superb, executing the look and feel of a hard-boiled thriller well. However, his screenplay is clunky and overdrawn, stretching the mystery plot to a perplexing final sequence. If you can look past the imperfect plot, Black Coal, Thin Ice is a visually stunning and unique Chinese crime thriller.
Overall, the films I saw at this year’s Sydney Film Festival were of a high standard. My personal favourite was Gabrielle, but I will treasure my experience of each film I saw.